A choice is coming for Caine (Tyrin Turner), a recent high school graduate living in the impoverished Watts neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles. Caine’s girlfriend proposes he move to Atlanta to help raise her baby boy, while his friend Sharif offers a chance at college life in Kansas. Caine’s violent best friend, O-Dog (Larenz Tate), appeals to Caine to stick with his roots. After all, as Caine says, he’ll still be black wherever he goes, so what’s the difference? As Caine drags his feet, life in Watts complicates with sex, murder, and bloody retaliation, and Caine’s chances start running out.
The origin of Menace II Society ties closely to the origin of Albert and Allen Hughes as filmmakers. The film was influenced, at least in part, by the hip hop culture the brothers joined while shooting music videos for a stable of West Coast rappers, including mega-star Tupac Shakur. The brothers wanted to move into feature films in a way that would exploit their music connections while breaking new ground. Spike Lee’s 1989 provocation Do the Right Thing opened the door ever-so-slightly for black filmmakers telling stories about the realities of poor, black, urban life, but the resulting films had typically cut dark themes with uplifting messages to appeal to broader (i.e., white) audiences, such as in John Singleton’s 1991 debut, Boyz in the Hood, which uses an uplifting family story to make the surrounding tragedy palatable. The Hughes Brothers rejected this. As they saw it, most kids don’t make it out of the hood, and suggesting otherwise is a cop out. They wanted their story to be more real.
Allen Hughes: We made the film to inform them [white audiences] of something they didn’t know. That black kids don’t just pop out the womb shooting guns for no reason. I remember when pitching the movie to New Line they go, “Well what is different between this and when we see the black guy on the news every night running from the helicopter? I go, “Well you’re in the motherfuckin’ helicopter and you don’t know why that kid is running.” (source)
The brothers, then only 20 years old, hired screenwriter Tyger Williams to transform their idea into a workable script, which they used to lure Shakur to star in the project. The package of talent and the brothers’ inherent marketability convinced New Line Cinema to finance the project for a mere $1.5m.
A serious issue developed on the set. Shakur, initially hired to play Caine’s Muslim friend Sharif, left the project for unclear reasons, although several accounts claimed he preferred the role of O-Dog to his own. Shakur felt disrespected by the brothers, leading to a physical altercation on the set of a music video for which Shakur eventually served 15 days in jail. Bad blood lingered between Shakur and the Brothers all the way up to Shakur’s death in 1996.
Menace II Society premiered in May of 1993 and became an overnight hit with critics. The New York Times, in particular, printed three reviews of the film and set the early tone for the discussion. The film rode those strong reviews to a $21m domestic take and, more importantly, worked its way into popular culture. The issues and images presented in Menace contributed to the identity of the “street” genre that bubbled in the early 1990s, and the film was a prominent target of the eventual Wayans Brothers spoof Don’t be a Menace to South Central while Drinking Your Juice in the Hood. In fact, the iconic opening sequence to Menace II Society became one of the central gags in the spoof.
What Works Like Crazy
Menace II Society hasn’t aged well, but that’s not a knock on its character or quality, but rather a testament to the film’s claim on a specific time and place in American culture. Picking it up fresh today, the film is too easy to dismiss as a junkbox of clichés and urban crime-drama tropes. We’ve all seen these images before: the black teenager brandishing his gun and talking shit; the momma sobbing in the streets while she cradles her gunned-down baby; the clean-cut kid trying to get out. The Wayans’s Don’t be a Menace came out in 1996, which shows just how quickly the genre was identified, autopsied, and reanimated for audiences as a source of laughs. But that’s not the fault of Menace II Society, which stands as one of a handful of fresh, raw films from the early 90s that spoke up for a grossly underrepresented point of view.
Some people think back to the 90s indie film scene and remember only rebel cowboy filmmakers rattling Hollywood cages with provocative, ultra-violent art, or the Miramax brand of awards-winning weirdness, but part of the excitement of that time came from the idea that new filmmakers could come from anywhere, and in fact were appearing all over, in the most unexpected places. A developing film community in black Los Angeles producing mainstream work was an intoxicating notion precisely because nothing like that had ever happened before, or even really been possible. When the LA Riots erupted in 1992, it provided bloody context for a wave of explosive films that seemed to put another Menace II Society, Boyz in the Hood, or New Jack City into theaters every couple of months. Black voices were speaking up in American film and, for once, a wider audience was listening, as crowds of every color wandered into theaters looking for answers behind the unrest they watched daily on the news.
What the Hughes Brothers delivered wasn’t comforting. Menace II Society proposes a world in which the hood is a prison, and the notion of escape to white, suburban America is a naïve illusion. It’s a fatalistic film that suggests apathy follows poverty, and its most alluring figure is a raging psychopath.
O-Dog is a ready-made cult figure, a character who embodies directionless rage, because he has no direction to go anyway. He doesn’t care about killing, about drugs, or about anything beyond getting ahead and proving his masculinity. His win-at-all-costs attitude comes from the same cultural wheelhouse that made Tony Montana an icon of the rap world, and one can easily imagine an alternate reality in which Tupac played the role and added the film to his already loaded canon of bad-ass imagery.
The film’s structure invites comparisons to 1990’s Goodfellas, and while it’s clear that Martin Scorsese’s movie was a major influence, I think Mean Streets is the more direct comparison. Like Menace, Mean Streets was heavily stylized, and yet real enough to feel as if it had organically sprung up in front of the cameras. Like both films, Menace leans heavily on voiceovers and mixes humor and violence to establish the ensemble of characters as a family with histories and lives beyond the all the murder and crime. Because of this, the Watts of Menace II Society feels as real as Scorsese’s New York. It has a tangible sense of place.
The film’s look is heightened and intense. The Hughes Brothers drench the film in vibrant colors—especially blood reds–and never hesitate to throw in a dutch angle or a showy camera move to twist the action to fit their purposes. The technique is sometimes distracting, but it works way more often than it doesn’t and gives the film a strong, unique voice.
If there is actually an alternate reality where Tupac Shakur is in the film, audiences of that universe have probably seen the better movie. Menace II Society succeeds when it feels dangerous, like a fresh scab pulled from the wounds of South Central LA, but the movie flounders when it gets tangled up in artificial plot points and, especially, when asking too much from its actors.
Larenz Tate (O-Dog) and Tyrin Turner (Caine) are the heart of the picture, but neither has the chops required to make the relationship believable. They’re acting and you can tell they’re acting. Tate, especially, seems like a really nice kid playing dress-up as a thug. Tate’s performance occasionally works for the film—it’s not unwelcome to see the little boy behind O-Dog’s bravado—but the film deflates whenever O-Dog has to be tough, which is all the damn time. Joe Pesci was so effective in Goodfellas because of how convincingly his character transitioned between being the clown and the psycho, but Tate wrestles with credibility.
The movie does boast a few strong performances, but mostly by actors who are sadly miscast. Samuel L. Jackson cameos as Caine’s father, but as the film was shot before Jackson’s breakout role in Pulp Fiction, he’s disappointingly quiet. Charles S. Dutton excels in his brief role as a teacher, but authority figures have no place in the film’s world, and his character feels jammed in. (Try imagining a well-meaning parole officer in Mean Streets.) The same goes for Jada Pinkett, whose character is the moral center for a movie portraying a world without morals.
That’s ultimately the problem with Menace II Society. The film that Albert Hughes describes in the quote above is a nihilistic, angry movie, but the film stumbles whenever rays of light try to peek through the clouds. Caine’s story is about a kid who had no chance, but Caine has PLENTY of chances. He’s practically swimming in opportunities to get out of the hood, but he rejects them all. It’s like the old joke about the man who refuses three different boats in a flood because he’s waiting for God to save him, and when he gets to heaven, God says “I sent three boats.” Caine’s problem is the hood, yes, but Caine’s other problem is Caine. Audiences who approach the film with the belief that a little bootstrap-pulling and upward mobility is all that’s needed to change the hood are likely to walk away unmoved.
The Hughes Brothers earned the attention they received for their debut feature. It’s stark and raw and honest in the way that good, debut films from young directors tend to be. Unfortunately, the brothers’ inexperience working with narrative results in stilted, awkward performances, and the script contains miscalculated plot points that undercut the movie’s theme. Still, Menace II Society deserves its reputation as a compelling work from compelling filmmakers, and contains images so iconic and fresh that it helped to launch an entire genre of successors who steadily stole from and chipped away at the film until its new ideas became somebody else’s clichés. Even as The Hughes Brothers have upped their filmmaking craft, they’ve rarely had as many interesting things to say.
The Hughes Brothers Project
2. Menace II Society
4. From Hell